Saturday, December 17, 2011

New Year: 1 Cor 1-5 for Dec 1

These chapters immediately show that Paul's thinking is not limited to the subjects of the treatise-like letter to the Romans. It's not just that Paul addresses very understandable practical problems, almost right off (1:10ff) in 1 Corinthians. The theology of Paul is significantly increased by 1 Corinthians. Reading in canonical order helps see that!

For example, the whole theme of nullifying (1:28), and its relationship to God's calling of the "things that are not...." Could we have guessed this from Romans? The closest parallel might be the idea that all the world is accountable to God, in Romans 3, or even better, the verse that formed the idea for the title of my blog, Romans 3:27. Boasting is excluded. Boasting is nullified. But nullification directed toward not an attitude but an "existent" thing (1:28) and its relationship to what the makeup of the called Christian body is? That's new.

Some things are wonderful elaborations of the thoughts that also occur in Romans. At the end of 1 Cor 3, there is a great elaboration of Romans 8's "will he not with Him freely give us all things?" in Paul's very memorable "all things are yours...."

Friday, December 16, 2011

New Year: Rm 14-16 for Nov 30

Romans is very unusually broad in its ethical section compared to the many letters (e.g. to the Corinthians and Thessalonians) in which Paul addresses specific problems. Here (15:14) much less so.

This has seldom been taken into account, so that the overarching nature of his approach to the Christian life in chapters 12ff. has been minimized. The things that Paul emphasizes ethically in these chapters should be considered as foundational to the Christian life as his doctrine in chapters 1-11.

For example, just as the first imperative in the doctrinal section to the Romans was for them to consider themselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11), being alive to God is his first principle behind ethics in 12:1. 6:13 moves to 12:1, as though the whole middle of the letter was needed to support the subject!

Having related the "vertical" aspects of our Christian life (13:14) to the "horizontal" (13:10-13), Paul continues in chapter 14 with the horizontal, which amounts to the building up of one another (14:19). In yet another defiance of Hume's rule that we cannot derive "ought" from "is," Paul says "for even Christ did not please Himself ..." (15:3), and to "accept one another" (15:7), because Christ became a servant of Jew and Gentile (15:8-9). Having recently gone through Acts, we can see how clearly God answered Paul's prayers of 15:31, and his proleptic statement of 16:26. "To the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Year: Rm 10-13 for Nov 29

"Those who were chosen obtained it," Paul says about what Israel was seeking, but "the rest were hardened...." (11:7). In Romans 9 (cf. 9:18) God's prerogative to show mercy on whomever He wants to is defended. In chapters 10-11, however, and even in 9:30-33, Paul brings up what is there for human beings to deal with, near-at-hand, to speak about: he talks about how "the righteousness out of faith speaks as follows ..." (10:6). What follows is not only THAT God has provided His righteousness for "everyone who believes" (10:3-4), but how "'the Word is near you ...'" (10:8).

There is a danger that we might miss the forest for the trees in what Paul is saying in Romans 10. The quotations and illustrations of 10:6-8 are not to be illustrations of the means of salvation, i.e., confessing this one fact, believing this one fact, but they are illustrations and quotations about Christ, for showing that Christ's resurrection and exalted position go together with our salvation and righteousness, and are in fact as present as what the mouth already says and the heart already believes, which came from the word of faith that Paul preaches (10:8).

In 10;6, the attitude that there are only a few accomplished souls, maybe somewhere, who can do the job of going to heaven to bring Christ down to our level so He would benefit us ... Paul says "DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART" that kind of thing! Paul says, do not say in our hearts, that the distance between ourselves and Christ must be covered by us going up to Him. in 10:7 it's the opposite: Paul says, do not say in our hearts, Christ's death puts the distance to Him downward, i.e., that we must "bring Christ up." The twin thoughts are ridiculed, as well as the thought of living by "the righteousness which is out of law" (10:5).

There is culpability when the good news has been preached, and "they did not all heed the good news" (10:16). After establishing that culpability, and God's mercy in spite of it which comes in the future, Paul goes on to the practical implications of God's mercy in chapter 12. Thus chapter 12 is not so much a response to the whole letter so far, althought it is that, as well, but mainly a response to the mercy that has just been proven as late as 11:32.

Romans 11;32 goes on to 12:1, but Paul gives God glory first. And then, Christian ethics: what to do in a general way, general guidelines for the Christians in Rome, in light of who they are. We can ask many ethicists, "how do you go from an 'is' (i.e., the truths of Romans 1-11) to an 'ought' (i.e., "you must do x,y,z")," and many ethicists say you can't go, directly. For example, Paul says "by the mercies of God', present your bodies ...." in 12:1. Is the mercy of God something that implies obligations on our part? Many ethicists say that's impossible, that obligations can only be derived from other obligations, as elaborations or implications of already-accepted obligations.

In point of fact, Paul does not say that "present your bodies ..." is an implication of God's mercies. He urges the Romans, as brethren, and by God's mercies. That phraseology itself is but one of the differences between serving in the oldness of the letter, and in the newness of the Spirit (7:6). We should be able to see the differences from here to as the letter concludes.

One shock, that is not often pointed out, between Christianity and other religions / ethical systems is this very fact ... Paul's letter is concluding! Those who were reading chapters 1-11 of Romans, just so they could "get to the good part," that which we should be doing, have a short class. The very fact that Romans 12ff are the length that they are puts Christianity in a class of religions all by itself.

Not as if people have not tried to 'remedy' this. Alas, they've been too successful, in that Christianity is conceived of as an ethic first, and beliefs second. For Paul, Romans shows what he thought of as standing first, before our ethics can even be shaped: things about the Christian as a result of Christ's death and resurrection! What is left is pointedly NOT an ethics manual: it has too few few words for that: mostly about humility, in chapter 12, and a few words, about living under an earthly ruler, the governing rule of love, and about the urgency of behaving properly. The distinctive thing in Christianity is repeated for emphasis in 15:13, and then goes on to his closings.

The brevity of the ethical section is not an argument "from" silence, but an argument from brevity. Paul is writing to those "who are led by the Spirit of God" (8:14). It is a mark of the presence of that belief that Paul's ethics, neither here no in any other writing, assume the number one focus of His religion. His religion, i.e., his service to God, is in his spirit, in the gospel of His Son (1:9).

New Year: Rm 7-9 for Nov 28

The "newness of the Spirit" (7:6) is explained further by Paul, as he explains further the Christian life in Rm 7-8. Also in the reading for today is the beginning of his defense of the fact that Israel as a nation did not "arrive at" (9:31) the "righteousness which is by faith" (9:30), this righteousness he has been explaining since 3:21.

All three of today's chapters contribute to understanding of the Law. The Law has a "just requirement" (8:4), that is, requirement that there be justice. Either the Mosaic Law itself, in the case of Israel (3:19), or the "work of the Law written in their hearts" (2:15), in the case of the Gentiles, brings the obligation to do right upon the whole human race, and Paul personifies the failure of all the sinful human race in Rm 7. There is only one exception to the rule that all the human race is sinful, and that is God's Son. Christ's work has consequences that change things for the world's problem of sin, as we've seen in 1:16 to 3:31. Christ's work also has consequences that change things about us "who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead," (4:24) , as we've seen from Romans 5-6, and see more in Romans 7 and 8. The gospel (good news) is "of God" (1:1) and of God's Son (1:9)..

Among the consequences for those who are "children of God" (8:16) is a change in the manner of serving God (7:6). A change, from what, to what? Before, as well as now for Paul, the Law is good (7:16), but in the presence of sin (7:8), the product of the combination of the Law and sin is that Paul, personifying all human beings, says, "I died." (7:9). The Law, "effecting my death through that which is good" (7:13), had this effect.

The change is from a state that Paul calls "while we were in the flesh" (7:5), to "not in the flesh but in the Spirit," (8:9). This is a change of being, from being those who "are according to the flesh" (8:5a) to "those whare are according to the Spirit" (8:5b). How is this all related to Christ?

Paul gives credit to a divine act upon the "brethren" for this change, and it is related to the death of Christ! Having opened that subject up in Romans 6:2ff, he continues examining more of this event! "My brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God" (7:4).

Exclamation point! This is the passive voice, "you also were made to die" (7:4), indicating God's work! God made us to die to the Law through the body of Christ. Exclamation point! Even though Paul defends that kind of thing (Rm 9ff), judging from the glory of that kind of thing, expressed all through Rm 3-8 (really: ...) God needs no defense for such a glorious combination of acts! "Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (7:24-5).

Paul explains this new freedom in terms that outstrip the glories of everything in our present creation: "the whole creation groans" (8:22). The existence of the whole present creation is characterized as "slavery to corruption" and compared to its future freedom, which it will share. What freedom? Shared with whom? "The freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:21)!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Year: Rm 3-6 for Nov 27

Having finished describing the state of the whole human world including those under the Law (2:17ff, 3:9-20), Paul begins describing what God has done about it in Romans 3:21 - 6:23, and beyond.

Paul not only has the most closely and clearly reasoned extended arguments in the Bible so far all year (cf. 4:3-22, 5:12-21), but assumes a familiarity with the actual text of the Old Testament -- not just a familiarity with it, but the ability to come to conclusions from it. Whoever is leary of coming to conclusions will not be able to understand Paul, because he wants us to be able to come to conclusions, very important ones, by the way, not only about the Old Testament (3:19-20), but about God (4:6, 5:1, Christ (6:3-11), and ourselves (6:2): what He has done (6:17-18) so that what we were is not what we are (6:20-22), and this described in many detailed and definitive ways (6:5). God has done a redemptive act (3:24) in public display of dealing with sin, a propitiation in the blood of Christ (3:25). Faith in Christ is credited as righteousness, (4:5), as free gift of God (6:23), and this grace through righteousness will reign to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (5:21).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New Year: Acts 28 - Rm 2 for Nov 26

Even though this day's reading straddles two books, it is appropriate for the consecutive reader almost more than any two books of the New Testament in canonical order. Paul in Rome, Acts 28. Paul speaking to them, Romans 1ff.

When Paul has not even yet arrived in Rome, there are Christians there with whom he stays, while still on the outskirts. Hearing that Paul is "unhindered" is the last word of Luke in the book of Acts, and Romans 1 appropriately says that Paul had been "prevented thus far" (1:13). So we see that the letter to the Romans predates Acts 28.

In another way, Romans supplies "the other side," the theological-treatise side, to the narrative of Acts, in which Luke, describing the providentially guided acts of the apostles and others in the church, spent less time describing their doctrine. That is remedied in Romans. Moo's [1996] commentary on Romans correctly identifies Romans as a theological treatise with opening and closing remarks. We'll comment further on Moo's commentary in the comments, something that we have dropped since early 2010.

What is remarkable in Romans 1 are the crowning statements in 1:16-17. These statements are as above the day-to-day descriptions of the activities of religious people trying to encourage one another, as the acts of God are above the acts of men. Indeed, that is the gospel's chief advantage, that it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. It's something greater than human teaching or human activity.

In a remarkably even-handed way, addressing the human condition from the points of view of "men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" -- whether Gentile or Jew (2:14,17), Paul lays out the problem which salvation rescues the human being from, in the way it does, by the bringing in of the gospel.

New Year: Acts 25-27 for Nov 25

From its beginnings in Acts 21:31 until the end of Acts, the Roman presence around Paul functions in God's purposes for his protection, both where Paul has control (21:40; 25:11; 26:2) and where he doesn't (23:30-31; 24:27; 25:21).

As the station increases in rank, from the soldiers and centurions (21:32) to King Agrippa (25:13), each higher authority is both equally fair and more knowledgeable than the previous. King Agrippa was not further identified to the readers, being the current king at the time of writing (A.D. 44-100, NBD). He is the son (Herod Agrippa II) of the earlier Herod (Herod Agrippa I) who executed James the apostle brother of John the apostle (12:2).

Paul's third recitation of his conversion story is the most polished, including his mission to the Gentiles. Before Agrippa, who is not a Jewish separatist but sided with Rome and was rewarded subsequent to the fall of Jerusalem for his loyalty to Rome, Paul's elucidation of his mission to the Gentiles is just fine. In fact, to Agrippa II Paul is a great scholar, so much so that they have a tete-a-tete moment of mutual recognition (26:24-28). By the time the reader hears the verdict on Paul, we are so used to the providence of God guiding Paul forward, that we say "bring it on!"

New Year: Acts 21-24 for Nov 24

In view of the spate of interest in the Roman Empire, Acts 21-24 reads like a plot for another great drama. There is plenty of drama (22:23), conflict (21:11,21-22), violence (21:31-36), flight (22:18), religious fanaticism (23:12-15), and the providential handling of these things (23:16). There's even government bureaucratic delay (24:25).

As far as speeches go, that of Paul to his accusers in Jerusalem is of a pattern with Stephen's in Acts 7. People will listen to lots of detailed facts, but if they include some sort of mirror of accusation back on the listeners (7:53), or the putting of the listeners in a relatively unfavorable light (22:21), the listening stops and the opposition often ensues.

Again the pax Romana is in evidence here (21:32), although it is not always "right-on" (21:38). In these chapters, Paul's rescue from Jerusalem's religious leaders is enabled through Paul's nephew (23:16), but it is actually brokered through a Roman centurion and a Roman commander, "Claudius Lysias" (23:26). We sense some fairness, along with an incredulity, in the secular arm (23:29).

In the case of the secular governor, Felix, his response to Paul is like a man who can point each eye separately. One eye views Christianity more exactly (24:22). But with the other eye, he summons Paul to preach to him, but hopes Paul will give him money (24:26)! Politics trumping knowledge ensues, and Felix passes from the scene.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

New Year: Acts 19-20 for Nov 23

Pauls ministry in Ephesus is highlighted in Acts 19-20.

The snippets of Paul's teaching that Luke reports make it instantly recognizable that it is the same man who wrote the New Testament letters we have (20:24,28,32). And the combination of these things with Luke's patterns of showing the success of the ministry among acts and patterns of opposition show it to be part of Luke's pattern of depiction (19:8,9,29; 20:3).

Luke also brings forward resolutions of conflict that make us say "that worked?" The speech of the town clerk (19:35ff) actually worked? Yes. It was not the current situation today. We aren't under a pax Romana as Paul was then.

Another interesting sidelight of the story of the "no small disturbance" at Ephesus (19:23) is what was said -- by a neutral party, not the Christians -- about the handling of idolatrousness. The neutral party said, regarding Paul and his companions, that Paul and his companions "are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of our goddess" (19:37).

This selectivity on the missionaries' part is reminiscent of the depiction of Paul before the other idolatrous group in Athens (17:22ff). Therefore the town clerk's summary rings true. Talking about "the God who made the world and all things in it" (17:24) has implications for idolatry, and the profits from idolatry, no doubt, but that is not the focus of the missionary message.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

New Year: Acts 17-18 for Nov 22

The preaching of Paul in various places -- it sounds slightly different in its approach, in various places in Acts 17-18.

Among synagogue attenders, both Jews and "the God-fearing" (17:4,17), Paul "reasoned with them from the Scriptures" (17:2). Among the Athenians at the Areopagus (17:22) Paul quoted "some of your own poets" (17:28). What was the common denominator? Jesus -- proving that He "is the Christ" (17:3) to the Jews in Thessalonica, and bringing up this same "man whom He [God] has appointed...." to the Athenians (17:31). The Anointed One, and whom God has appointed, of course, are the same. The Jews, already knowing the exaltation of the Messiah from the Old Testament scriptures such as Ps 2, would already know that at some point the Messiah will break and shatter the nations (Ps 2:9). The Greeks, in Athens, from philosophy, would know about the breaking and shattering of all nations of history (17:26), but wouldn't know about the one God has appointed judge of all human beings.

The Jews of the time knew about a Person coming, but didn't know He came. The Greeks of the time knew about the process of nations coming and going, but didn't know about the judgment of the individual person, and about Person through whom God would judge all, and the recent public proof God has provided of that (17:31).

New Year: Acts 14-16 for Nov 21

How remarkably free from individuals "rising" to power is the expansion of the gospel in these chapters, Acts 14-16.

However, opposition is not all external. The external opposition is very brutal (14:19; 16:23-24). The internal opposition, focusing on the issue of circumcision and the Law in its entirety (15:1,5,21), is dealt with by a large group of leaders but more than just leaders (15:22).

We might miss how, in these days of daily communication about religion, how such a group of dispersed people, hundreds of miles away in modern Turkey, or over a thousand miles from Jerusalem in Greece, could grow. To "see how they are" in Acts 15:36 seems quite an understatement. This is also very true about remote places today into which Christians have gone, people have believed the word of God, and the messengers who brought the word have left. What is a new Christian left with?

God, and God's grace of course. He tends His own. This emphasis on the "grace side of things" came out earlier (cf. 15:11,40). It comes from the fact that "God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance to life." (11:18). If God has granted the turning of someone to life, the church's first order of responsibility is "do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles," as James summarized (15:19). When the original messengers went through where they had been before, what was their activity? They "strengthened the churches" (15:41). That sounds very positive, for being hundreds of miles and mountains and ships away from the origin of the religion.

Can God, His leading in grace, be specific enough for a new Christian? Is 16:6-10 specific enough, as an example, for the missionaries themselves? It is interesting that this specific example of God's guidance comes right after two incidents that seem very awkward in the missionary journey. The first is the "sharp disagreement" in 15:39. The second is the circumcision of Timothy in 16:3. The missionaries themselves were taking "the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them [the Christians located in those remote cities] to observe" (16:4). Among these decrees were the words about circumcision not being necessary. The circumcision was done "because of the Jews who were in those parts," (16:3), not for the sake of the Christian life. And Barnabas and Mark worked in a separate arena (15:39). Neither activity was man-led. On the issue of circumcision, the issue was described as resolved when "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (15:28). On the issue of where to go, God leads that too, as He made plain in 16:6-10. Paul speaks from experience, as well as revelation, when in Romans he says "all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Rm 8:14).

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

New Year: Acts 11-13 for Nov 20

In those days in which Peter preached to Cornelius, the receiving of the Holy Spirit by Gentiles (10:47) was not widely known back in Jerusalem until Acts 11:1. This section of Acts begins the specific story of how the Christian message goes out to those who are not already in Peter's religion.

This was not Paul's doing. Peter gets a vision from God about it, which he explains to those who are initially against it (11:3). They change their mind, and ended up glorifying God for this (11:18).

Even in Antioch, where Paul was going to be pivotal, in which "speaking to the Greeks, they preached the Lord Jesus" occured, it wasn't started by Paul. Here there is no miraculous sign given of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Barnabas was sent by the apostles to see the nature of the movement. When he arrived, he "saw the grace of God" (11:23), and by himself, without Paul's verification, he was convinced of their beginnings, and told them to remain true to the Lord. Only then, he went to get Paul (11:25ff).

Saturday, December 03, 2011

New Year: Acts 9-10 for Nov 19

Acts 9-10 are why so many people associate the beginning of the church with both Peter and Paul. The outstanding descriptions of their activities in these chapters gain our attention, but do we notice the providential guidance that is underneath (9:16; 10:19-20)?

So Peter and Paul would both beg to differ on being its beginners, and would ask us to look above them. Luke has a way of doing this, without denigrating their part. For example, lest we're too enamored with one mechanism or topic sequence (2:38), He provides another (10:44-48). It's human nature to ask questions such as "what's first? what's second? what do I have to do next?", but when God is doing the very same thing (10:47) during events which occur a different order, Peter has to backtrack (10:47).

Another example occurs in the variety of the various "conversion" stories. Here was that of Cornelius and his household, which defies us to list the things that were told to them before they were converted (10:44). But that's only one conversion story. Take Paul's: the only doctrine of preparation for conversion we can get from Acts 9:1-3 is what Paul's preceding state before his conversion was, and as far as we can tell, he was travelling on his way to Damascus. As far as I know, there has been no theory of preparing for conversion, among many, many, many, that has stipulated that one needs to be on the way to Damascus.

Friday, December 02, 2011

New Year: Acts 7-8 for Nov 18

Let's not let "Oh, I know this story" prevent us from reading about the martyrdom of Stephen as if for the first time, in Acts 7.

Much has been made of Stephen's knowledge of the Old Testament. If he was a Hellenistic Jew he certainly carries the torch well for knowledge of the Old Testament outside the borders of Israel, just as Paul later does. Paul, who was present at this speech, but was as yet unconverted, possibly was hearing something said, by a person who used his language, yet refuted his views all the more.

Just as important is the reflection of the chapter on us. Stephen's speech shows that reciting the history of the nation need not be an hagiograph of the nation. How often have you heard a story of the Israelite wandering in the wilderness that uses the facts Stephen found in Amos 5? (Acts 7:42-43)? Today, the chief use being made of the wanderings in the wilderness, is to exhort us to not follow their example of unbelief. And well we shouldn't. But when have you heard a sermon about the idol factories in the wilderness, and not to follow those!

In his dying words, Stephen's example shows another rarity. It is perfectly compatible to be very much a critic of someone, yet forgive them from your heart and seek at all costs, their forgiveness (7:60).


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